Safety planning : the empowerment power tool

Safety First Post-Separation Violence Preparing To Leave

Safety planning : the empowerment power tool

  • Reading time : 7 min

When a person experiences violence in their relationship with a partner or ex-partner, they are constantly dealing with a certain degree of risk, which involves a lot of stress and distress.

My loved ones don't realize how COMPLICATED my life actually is. I left him 3 months ago and it seems as if I am still confronted to difficult decisions or situations every single day. When I told him that I was leaving, when I ran into him during the move, when he calls or texts me, day and night, when I have to see him for the kids, when our paths cross in Court, when I "accidentally" bump into him at the grocery store… it’s all so heavy. One of the things that helped me the most was when the shelter worker suggested that I work on protection scenarios. Building my scenarios helped me prepare for these situations. I liked the fact that she didn't tell me what to do. Instead we brainstormed and found responses and reactions that suited me and that were tailored to my situation.

Survivor, 45 years old

Building bridges to safety

In order to promote safety for a victim-survivor of violence, it is important to understand and to respect their protection and defence mechanisms in order to avoid rushing into anything that could increase risks for the person and for their children. This is the importance of "going at one's own pace". It is however possible to develop ways to increase safety in the moment and to help deal with the fear and danger that can remain present, sometimes years after separation. Helping to deal with difficult, scary and potentially dangerous situations is exactly what safety planning is about.

Safety planning aims to counteract the risks associated with a decision or with a situation. It can help when making difficult decisions and allows the victim-survivor to prepare to face different situations. It can be built by the victim-survivor for themselves (because the most important part of safety planning is to trust the person’s experience and their feelings about the situation) but if possible, it helps to build them with someone who can offer support and ideas, be it a violence advocate or trusted friend or family member.

*SOS violence conjugale is available 24/7 to gives access to violence advocates throughout Quebec.

I'm not ready to leave. I'm too afraid of his reaction if I leave with the kids. For now, I'm building strength from within with the help of a counsellor. For me, safety scenarios are a way to function as well as possible despite his violence, to protect what is most important: my children and my identity. Most of my safety strategies are in my head... mantras to keep me calm when things get heated, my advocate’s voice telling me it's not my fault, a mental wall against his insults, etc. Other strategies are about what I want to say (and not say) and how I want to say it if I am ever faced with a confrontation. I can choose my reactions ahead of time and it makes me feel more in control of my life even if the violence is ongoing.

Survivor, 37 years old

Step 1 - Identifying the potential danger

The first step to safety planning is to choose a situation that could potentially pose a risk to the victim-survivor or to their children. It could be a danger to one's physical safety or to one's emotional or psychological integrity. Ideally, safety planning scenarios are created for each event or situation that is anticipated (although one scenario can often be useful in several situations). 

Here are some questions that can help identify the situation for which safety planning could be useful :

  • I would be afraid that things would go wrong if...
  • It was really bad when...
  • I was really afraid when...
  • I fear the moment when...

Step 2 - Making the risk inventory

The second step to safety planning is to identify the risks associated to the chosen situation, in the most practical way possible. This step is particularly useful when a person tends to react to stress with the fight response (see our article on stress reactions for more details), because it allows them to stop and evaluate the safety issues related to the situation before it arises.

Here are some questions that can help :

  • What could happen?
  • How might my abuser react?
  • What might they say?
  • What has happened in a similar situation in the past?
  • How far could it go?

Step 3 - Planning for safety

After identifying the possible risks, the third step to safety planning is to explore strategies that could help to increase safety in the chosen situation. Different avenues can be considered, depending on the situation. This step is particularly useful when a person tends to react to stress with the freeze response, because it counteracts powerlessness.

Avoidance strategies

Sometimes work-around strategies can help prevent the risky situation from occurring in the first place. For example, exchanging children in a public or supervised place, communicating in writing (e-mail, text message, etc.) rather than in person, obtaining legal protection measures, etc. Before separation, one may also choose to comply with the abuser's requests in order to protect themselves in the short term.

Buffering strategies

Conflict mitigation strategies can sometimes help to buffer the risk of certain events. For example, what physical postures are to be avoided, what could be said, how it could be said, what could calm the situation, etc. Being strategic could also promote safety in times of crisis. For example, determining in advance which room would be the safest, which emergency exits are accessible, which objects could become weapons and should be relocated, etc.

Self-defense strategies

Psychological self-defence strategies can be useful to protect one's psychological integrity, self-esteem, self-confidence and identity. For example, mantras to counter insults and denigration can be developed, anchoring strategies can be built out of positive words from allies, small objects or keepsakes that represent loved ones can be kept close by, worn or carried for strength, etc. Physical self-defence strategies can also be helpful in protecting one's physical integrity. For example, learning how to get away when being physically restrained, practicing how to scream, learning how and where to strike, etc.

Technological strategies

Technical/technological strategies can be put in place to promote safety. For example, alarm systems, apps allowing one to share their movements with a trusted ally, panic buttons, emergency call functionalities in cell phone, etc. Conversely, it is important to become aware of ways in which technology may have been used by the abusive partner to increase their control, learning to recognize if the geolocation features of different devices are being used against their will, avoiding using devices that may have been compromised or tampered with by the abuser (personal computer, cell phone, email account, social network accounts, etc.).

Empowerment strategies

One possible way to empowerment is to collect evidence about the situation of violence for possible legal or criminal recourse later on. For example, documenting events, finding ways to record situations of violence, getting witnesses to record their observations, etc. Another way to empowerment is to prepare ways to call for help or to flee if necessary. For example, developing codes with hidden meanings that could be sent to loved ones (for example, talking about grandma could mean to call 911, talking about Toronto could mean to ask the person to come to the house and create a diversion, etc.). Building a support network with resources, hiding personal belongings at work in case of a hasty departure or hiding money in a safe place could also be useful strategies in some situations.

Because many avenues are possible, it is useful to brainstorm, to gather all the ideas without discarding the options at first glance. The more a safety plan is rooted in one's reality and experience with one's partner, the more likely it is that it will be useful and effective in a crisis. For this reason, family members and counsellors/advocates should avoid “telling the victim-survivor what to do", but rather focus on assisting them in brainstorming ideas and giving them full power to decide what strategies they want to implement.

Here are some questions that may be helpful at this stage:

  • How could I keep myself calm in this situation?
  • What has helped in a similar situation in the past?
  • What could I do or say to calm or reason with him?
  • What could I do or say to deflect the situation or escape? 
  • How would I like to express myself?
  • How could I protect myself physically? 
  • How could I protect myself psychologically? 
  • How (and who) could I call for help if I need it? How would I do it? 

It is important to remember that when faced with violence and danger, the victim-survivor has the right to use whatever means necessary to protect themselves. They have the right to be inauthentic, to pretend and to lie. They have the right to say what the abuser wants to hear even if they don't really mean it. They have the right not to stick to what they have previously said or promised. They have the right to promise something even if they don't intend to stick to it afterwards. They have the right to pretend to believe the abuser. They have the right to choose NOT to stand their ground, if they feel that that would put them at more risk. They have the right to defend themselves in any way necessary, even if it means physically defending themselves if faced with a risk to one's immediate physical safety.

Step 4 - Practice makes perfect

Now that a safety scenario has been planned, the last step is to do exactly like actors do before going on stage: rehearse. The more it is possible to practice, the easier it becomes to implement the safety plan once faced with the situation. This step is particularly useful when a person tends to react to stress with the flight response, because it plunges them into action at a time when it is less difficult to do so.

While it may seem strange to approach things in such a calculated manner, safety planning has been shown to be very useful in situations of intimate partner violence. Of course, even the best of plans has its limits, but mental preparation and putting in place creative and practical measures that one might not have thought of on the spot often makes a big difference when faced with a dangerous situation.


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Bien que la violence conjugale touche majoritairement des femmes, elle peut aussi toucher les hommes et les personnes issues de la diversité sexuelle et de genre. Les services de SOS violence conjugale sont offerts à toutes les personnes touchées par la problématique.

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